Payson’s new superintendent of schools, Ron Hitchcock, has small-town values in his blood.
He grew up in Springville, Utah, population 29,605, where his Mormon community taught him the importance of family and community.
“If you’re in a village or a town that looks at the students as their collective responsibility ... you have a safety net regardless of what the county or city would do,” said Hitchcock.
He had to use the values learned in his youth when he moved to McKenzie, Ore., after raising his five children and his wife Sandie’s two children.
McKenzie has a population of 5,530 people living near the McKenzie River. The district has only 340 children, most not living with their biological parents.
“In Oregon, there’s a lot of kids being raised by somebody else,” said Hitchcock. “I was staggered as I went through student-by-student and realized that we (biological parents who raised their children) were in the minority by a huge margin.”
He got to work turning the school into the safety net so many students lacked. He set aside a room at the school for the community to donate used clothing, school supplies and equipment. A local citizen ran what essentially became the community pantry. Children “shopped” for what they needed and found resources Parents learned to write grants.
“It was self sustaining in that regard,” said Hitchcock.
He had to wear many hats in the McKenzie district — principal, superintendent, business manager, transportation and special education director. As a result, Hitchcock had to learn to delegate and hire people to cover all of the bases.
The Hitchcocks spent 12 years in Oregon. He ended up in Portland where he managed an education service district (ESD) providing services to districts with a total of 92,000 students.
“There really isn’t anything like an ESD in an Arizona model,” he said. “In Oregon, 5 percent of the district’s budget is earmarked for ESDs. We provide direct services to our district.”
When a relative from Arizona fell ill, the Hitchcocks decided to move closer so they could help out. They rented a home in Cave Creek as they looked for a position for Ron — Sandie has retired from law enforcement.
Many of their friends and family shudder at how they decide where to move.
“Our friends and family say, ‘You’ve got it wrong, get the job first and then move,’” said Hitchcock. “No, we’ve got it right — we pick where we want to live, and then we give it a year.”
This strategy has worked for them — they have found success wherever they move. If the reactions from the school board are an indication, Hitchcock should do fine in Payson.
“He was the only one I felt had the knowledge to take over and hit the ground running,” said board member Rory Huff.
Huff also sat through the hiring process for the current superintendent, Casey O’Brien.
“He has a lot of superintendent experience,” said board president Barbara Underwood.
Hitchcock has already done his homework. He read about the dilemma facing the Career Technical Education classes and has a solution available — an alternating eight-period day.
Hitchcock used this eight-period day at another school district with favorable results.
How it works: the eight periods get broken into four 90-minute classes per day. This eliminates 25 minutes per day of wasted in transition time between classes.
The “A” group (periods one through four), rotated with the “B” groups (periods five through eight), every other week to make up the five-day week.
The first week would have the “A” group Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while the “B” group would have instruction on Tuesday and Thursday. The next week, that rotation would flip.
With this schedule, Hitchcock saw that the students benefited from having an extra day to catch up on a class they missed due to an absence and to spread out their homework. The 90 minutes of instruction allowed the luxury of having the time to delve into subjects. Teachers also had more prep time, he said.
“Right now, you have one-sixth of staff on prep time, but on block, you’ve got 25 percent of staff,” he said. “Now your staff can spend 90 minutes on professional development.”
The biggest challenge to the eight-period day is buy-in from the teachers and staff.
Hitchcock recognizes the lack of dollars in the budget threatens all parts of the district. He’s prepared for belt tightening.
“You’ll have to look at everything and say you’ve got too many irons in the fire because the community can only support so many pots of excellence.”
He is prepared to pull activities that do not have the enrollment to support the expenditure.
“Sometimes in a democracy, individual rights have to ... take a secondary issue to the will of the majority,” he said.
He recognizes he will not be able to make everyone happy, yet Hitchcock recognizes that without extracurricular subjects, many children lose interest in school.
“There’s a whole bunch of kids that if (extracurricular activity is) not available, they’re going to check out of the system mentally or physically, because that’s what keeps them happy,” he said.
Striking this balance affects not only Payson, but public school districts across the nation.
One district Hitchcock worked at had a unique collaborative approach to the address the funding challenge:
The parents, community and district formed a non-profit organization to support all the non-academic extracurricular activities. Instead of overwhelming the community with endless fund-raisers, the organization set aside three days per year, to raise money to donate to the extracurricular budget each year.
“This is the most successful model I have seen,” said Hitchcock.
For Hitchcock, education requires an artistic, not a technical paint-by-numbers approach. That attitude influences how he prefers to approach teacher and school evaluations.
He feels evaluating through standardized test scores cannot capture the subtle nature of how a good teacher tailors the lesson to each class and student.
“I think when you ask a parent how you tell if a teacher is doing a good job with your kids, you don’t start with, ‘They really excelled on this test,’ you start with a whole other list,” said Hitchcock.
In the end, Hitchcock returns to his belief the school and community have a symbiotic relationship, where one cannot survive without the other.
“(The school) should be the heart of the community, the gathering point of the community, be the topic of the community, or whatever it is because of the kids. So if we believe it takes a village to raise a child — if we believe that a future for all of us is determined by the kids that we’ve got — why wouldn’t you want to be part of that?”